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Bobak Ferdowsi

NASA’s favourite mohawk commemorates astronomical landings with unexpected hair choices

Writer

Liana Aghajanian

Photographer

Sinziana Velicescu

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It happened almost instantly: one minute Iranian-American Bobak Ferdowsi was a relatively unknown NASA systems engineer, sitting with his colleagues as they watched the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars, and the next he had amassed more than 40,000 Twitter followers, was turned into dozens of Internet memes and even received a slightly frightening amount of marriage proposals.It was NASA’s live broadcast of the event that introduced him to the world, but it was his hair – a mohawk streaked blue and red with cream-coloured stars shaved on the sides – that cemented his presence in the American pop culture psyche.

It was amazing to me that we could operate a car on the surface of another planet

NASA soared into space that night, on August 6, 2012, but all eyes fixated on Ferdowsi. His image immediately went viral, breaking stereotypes of the average NASA scientist. He became so popular that his 15 minutes of fame even seeped into the White House, leading to a shout out from President Barack Obama, who called him the ‘mohawk guy’ when he phoned the team to congratulate them on the successful landing.

But what many didn’t know was that it wasn’t the first time Ferdowsi had shown up to work with a hairstyle you wouldn’t exactly expect to find in the confines of NASA, a place responsible for the first moon landing, launching the first flight of a reusable spacecraft and capturing the first images of Mars.

Ferdowsi has rocked a mohawk since 2006, using his hair as a canvas to commemorate important NASA events. There was the time he shaved the letters ‘ST’ into his hair to honour a System Test, and the time he dyed the front of his mohawk a bright red and gold to simulate a rocket flame taking off ahead of a launch. For the Curiosity Rover landing, an email had gone out to the team about what clothing options they should collectively consider for the occasion. One email’s side note turned into a larger conversation: what should Bobak’s hair look like?

‘It was just a way of celebrating big events for us, which kept going,’ he says, adding that he didn’t anticipate so many people to tune in on that particular night, much less notice his hair. ‘In my mind, I thought it was going to be a relatively quiet landing.’

It turned out to be anything but. The media frenzy that followed Ferdowsi and his hair didn’t really sink in until several surreal days after, and his co-workers took out any time they could to remind him of what exactly had happened. ‘People were posting some of the memes during our meetings,’ he says. ‘They would show them mid-presentation.’

Born in 1979 to an Iranian father and an American mother, Ferdowsi grew up in San Francisco’s Bay Area, but he never saw his Iranian-American background as different to his peers.

The first time that he was made acutely aware of his heritage, however, took place on a walk home from school as a child. It was the early 1990s and tensions were high in the US as a result of the Gulf War. There were days when kids would throw rocks at him as he walked by. ‘They definitely weren’t intending to hit me, but they were trying to scare me,’ he says.

After his father received a visiting professor position at the University of Tokyo, Ferdowsi and his family moved to Japan, where he lived for six years. He picked up the language and travelled anywhere he could by train. ‘It’s a weird sense of home for me. It was a surprisingly freeing experience,’ he says.

Growing up, Ferdowsi voraciously consumed science fiction, spent his summers learning algebra and physics, and found a mentor in a charismatic and engaging high school chemistry teacher. It was the landing of the Mars Pathfinder on July 4, 1997 that solidified Ferdowsi’s interest in NASA.

‘It was the beginning of the Internet era and you could go to your Netscape Navigator 3.0 and go to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL’s website and there would be these 640 x 480 pixel images that were happening in the last 24 hours on Mars,’ he says. ‘The idea that there were people who were doing this kind of thing – I was so enamoured with that. It was amazing to me that we could operate a car on the surface of another planet.’

Working at JPL in Pasadena, California since 2003, Ferdowsi was invited to Obama’s second inauguration, as well as the 2014 White House Science Fair. The official announcement introduced him as the flight director of the Mars Curiosity Rover, ‘aka NASA’s “Mohawk Guy”.’

‘It’s still very cool to me that the White House Science Fair really involves the president in making kids who are creative and builders and seeking knowledge and creative experiences into rock stars for a day,’ he says. ‘We worship the celebrity thing, so it’s awesome that we can hopefully turn some of these scientists into celebrities.’

Though three years have gone by since his initial rise to fame, Ferdowsi’s fashion choices and passion for all things space is still going strong. He’s now working on NASA’s Europa Mission, exploring Jupiter’s moon and investigating whether it can harbour conditions that are suitable for life. In keeping with tradition, Ferdowsi has dyed his mohawk a bluish tint – to match Europa’s icy surface.

The world still hasn’t forgotten his label as NASA’s ‘mohawk guy,’ however. This past summer, an intern approached Ferdowsi as he was getting coffee with a heartfelt message. ‘I just want you to know that for a lot of us interns, your hairstyle helps us more alternative kids feel like we belong here,’ the note read. Ferdowsi calls it one of his best moments to date.

‘The idea that somehow I had made people feel a little bit more comfortable in their own skin, and in someway helped them feel like they were welcome at a place like JPL was an awesome experience,’ he says. ‘And the reality is I think they are welcome. I think the perception is catching up with the reality in the world.’

This article appears in Brownbook’s November/December 2015 issue.

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